our mother starts crying when Dami turns up for his funeral.
He is fashionably late. You expect this. You also expect him to overdo his entrance, but you are still surprised by what he comes up with. First, he appears from a chauffeur-driven Bentley Mulsanne (you have no idea where he rented or borrowed it from). Then, a red carpet is actually rolled out for him. He completes the show with a tailored tuxedo and Aviator sunglasses even though it’s past 6 p.m., and it had been dark and drizzling all day. He waves to the small cluster of family and friends under the canopies in the front lawn of the family house. They chortle and applaud. It causes him to break character, and his smug facade slips into laughter. Your mother starts shaking her head, chuckling, but she’s still crying. Then in a blink, she’s out of the blocks to him. She wraps her arms round his midriff, hangs on tight, and chants his name like a prayer. “Damiete. Damiete. Damiete.”
When your mother finally releases him, he gives a warm hug to Ejeme, your wife. Then he sees you, smiles, and tries to do his usual strut, but it’s one-sided and leaden. He reaches you, opens his arms inviting you to check him out. “You like?”
You think bow-ties are silly, but Dami easily pulled off wearing a black one, even now. You straighten it. You hug him, tentatively, because you’re mindful of his dapper baffs, how much weight he had lost, how fragile he looked; and also because you remember yesterday’s conversation with Joy.
Then you remember the last time you saw him with a bow-tie. It was the day of his Confirmation at St. Cyprian’s in ’93, coincidentally, also his thirteenth birthday. It was a white clip-on — he was dressed in all white, a cherub on his last day of innocence — and you, his eighteen-year-old brother, had playfully pulled his cheeks as you fixed the tie. Kalada had been there too, aloof and scowling because those were the only ways he knew to show that he was the first son and he was too cool for church. Dami squeezes you and you know he remembered that day. You squeeze too. Then you step back, dust imaginary fluff off his shoulders, tug the tie again, and nod your approval. “Fine Boy! Nothing do you.”
But something is doing Dami. It’s eating him sef. Brain tumour. Malignant. Stage 4. Inoperable. Discovered too late to treat. You had insisted that he treat it anyway. But all the radiotherapy did was to tire him out, make him vomit, and thin his hair. When he stopped it, his new hair grew so freakishly curly that you yabbed him about his Jheri curls. He couldn’t do much about the mood swings and the growing paralysis on his left side. But he could do painkillers for the persistent headaches, and as you expected, he overdosed them to the point where he was almost always higher than God’s kite. When you talked about it, he had laughed, pointed out that it was a peaceful, calming high, and told you to be grateful that he was no longer on his usual psychotic trips from his “recreational stimulants”. His quip made you search his room for illegal opioids — (he had moved from the family house into the guest bedroom of your house) — and he, smirking all through, waited for you to finish the search before telling you that he had been clean for months. But knowing Dami, it was safer not to believe him.
The most optimistic doctors had given him five months to live. He was down to the last four weeks. And because Dami never did things like normal people, he had insisted on organizing and attending his funeral. “It’s going to be the best funeral ever,” he promised. “People are going to wish they were dead so they can have a funeral like mine.” And he laughed, and you chuckled because you understood. And Ejeme who didn’t understand yet, had assumed the laughter meant Dami was joking as he always did. Until the day she saw you making online transfers to pay the caterers and decorators. You tried to explain. You told her about Kalada and your father, but your words came out in weak trickles like a drying tap, and you knew she still didn’t understand. So she asked Dami, and all he did was smile his lopsided smile and say, “You know all those things you are going to say about me when I die? I’m throwing my funeral so you tell me yourself.”
Your mother hadn’t taken the news of Dami’s funeral well. “Over my dead body!” she had declared. The added insult was that it was to be held in the family house where she lived. Somehow, she managed to blame you for it. And when she realized that you were funding the funeral, she accused you, in typical Nigerian mother hyperbole, of conspiring with Dami to kill her before her time. But whenever she spoke to Dami, as expected, she never talked to him about it or forbade him from having the funeral. She’d only sob, and promise him that he was going to bury her and not the other way around. But Dami would smile and casually say something cruel, like tell her not die before him because he didn’t have money to bury her. And she’d wail some more. And Dami would pretend to fall asleep till she left, or he’d call in your twin three-year-old daughters to entertain him while he ignored her. It was always uncomfortable for you to watch your mother suffer for her favourite and last child. But you were too jaded to intervene.
Dami clasps your shoulders and leans in as though he wants to hug you again. He whispers, “How was your Lagos trip?”
You whisper back. “Rough. Just got back this afternoon. Oil prices are still dropping. I couldn’t get them to reverse the slashing of our contracts and…” You stop because you realize that’s not what he wants to know.
He speaks more plainly. “You saw Joy?”
“Yes. Yesterday evening.”
“Did you convince her to come?”
You pause. Then you lie. “I don’t know.”
He sighs. His shoulders slump. You lie again. “Hey, she may turn up. The night is still young.” You slap his cheek playfully. “Chin up. It’s your night. We’re waiting for you to start the show.”
Dami had been calling it a living funeral; the banners declared it a ‘Celebration of the Life of Damiete Kuruye-Briggs’; your mother was expecting it to be more of a service of songs, a sombre event. But you knew, and Dami knew you knew, that whatever it was when it started, last-last, it must turn into a roaring party.
He boom-laughs. “The show must go on, abi?”
He resets his sunglasses. “OK na. Let’s give them a show.”
“I hear Dami is dying. Is it true?”
“What’s wrong with him?”
You told her.
“Is he in pain?”
Joy smiled. “That’s good.”
She stared hard at you, expecting a reaction. You didn’t give her one. Or rather, you didn’t give her the one she hoped for. Experience from negotiating many oil service contracts meant you were expert in masking your surprise. You used your fork to move the asun and pepper on your plate around. You asked, “Are you sure you don’t want to eat something?”
“Something to drink?”
“I’ve said I don’t want anything.”
It was day four of your five-day trip to Lagos. You had called Joy before you left Port Harcourt, as soon as you landed in Lagos, and every day, hoping to meet with her. She had posted you and posted you, but eventually, she agreed to dinner. She met you at the rooftop balcony restaurant of your hotel. It was the first time you were seeing her in almost four years. She was still svelte and stylish, but you were shocked by how much verve had been drained from her, leaving behind a doll-like shell.
“I’m so sorry, Priye. I shouldn’t have talked to you like that.”
You shrugged. “It’s OK.” You placed the cutlery on the plate. “I’ll get to the point. I’m in Lagos for some business. Dami asked me to use the chance to see you, and apologise on his behalf. He says he’s really sorry for everything. He says he can’t apologise himself because you don’t take his calls, and refuse to see him anytime he comes to Lagos.” You reached into your jacket and pulled out the envelope containing Dami’s letter. You slid it across the table. “He also said I should give this to you.”
Joy didn’t touch it or look at it.
“He’s having a living funeral tomorrow evening. I know it’s short notice, but he also wants you to attend. I also want you to. If you prefer, I’ll cover all costs: airfares, hotel, everything—”
“I don’t want your money!” She shook her head with vehemence. “And I’m definitely not going.” Almost immediately, she raised a hand in apology for her tone. You smiled.
“Why is he having a living funeral?”
You shrugged. “You know Dami always wants to stand out.”
You don’t tell her that though you were both Kalabari men, Dami hated Kalabari funerals. You had both attended two, both of which cut deeply.
The first was for Kalada. Deceived by his natural strong-head, he joined a university confra and formed gangster even though he was a middle-class kid who grew up in G.R.A. in Port Harcourt. One night, he was cornered by a rival gang in his room in Choba, off-campus in UniPort, and shot as he pleaded for his life. He was buried in Abonnema, your ancestral town. Until the last year of his life when he joined confra, you had all been closely knit, especially both of you as he was only two years older. Dami was thirteen when Kalada died. You and Dami would have preferred to mourn Kalada quietly, but Kalabari funerals, like most African funerals, didn’t create room for private grief. So you and Dami endured the pawing crowds, the strangers who forced their familiarity on you because they were distant relatives, and the rites which you thought were ridiculous. And in the middle of the all-night din koru, Dami had suddenly turned to you and whispered, “I’d rather die than be buried like a Kalabari man.” And you were so surprised that you laughed. And your father and some of his fellow chiefs frowned, and someone told you off for your indecorum.
Your father died two years after Kalada. The stroke that killed him came with a black sense of humour: it caught him in his mistress’ house, some say in the middle of sex, others say in the middle of a meal: either way, it caught him sha. Because he was a prominent chief, his was the society wedding of funerals. After the frills — renovation of the family house in Abonnema prior to the burial; mortuary fees for ten months; the gun and cannon salutes that were enough to fight a small war; the lavish canoe regattas; the drums and masquerades; three ornate lying-in-state beds — his oil-tools supplying company was in debt.
But the bigger loss was watching them gradually demean your mother. And when they came to shave your mother’s hair as required by tradition, you and Dami grabbed machetes and dared them to touch her. She pleaded with you to let them, and you refused. The standoff only ended when she took the scissors and calmly hacked her hair in ugly haphazard patterns: and Dami’s tears flowed like they would never stop. And during her one-year post-funeral confinement — (she was to stay shaven, wear black daily and not leave the family house in Port Harcourt during the period) — on many nights, she allowed you to sneak her out and drive her around the city while she stared out the window in silence. Sometimes Dami joined you, and on those nights, with the roads free of traffic, and your mother watching quietly from the back seat, you taught your baby brother how to drive.
You tuned out your memories and refocused on Joy. “If tomorrow’s short notice, come sometime soon. He needs to see you.” Maybe the reminiscing made you maudlin because you did something you wouldn’t normally do – you begged. “Please reconsider. Please,” you said. “I’m not asking you to come see Dami because you were married to him…well technically, the divorce hasn’t been finalized yet. I’m asking because you were both in love once, and I’m hoping that a part of that love, even if it’s just a tiny part, is still alive.”
It came out sharp, loud, like a slap. It startled people on nearby tables and they looked at you, some sniggering. You stared them down till they looked away. You turned to Joy and noticed she was trembling from all the effort of trying to control her anger.
She spoke in a clipped, biting whisper. “And tell me, Priye – did you preach this love to Dami when he was beating me?”
“Dami beat you?” Your voice was a weak croak
“Like a slave. Almost every day for three years.” She paused when she read your face. “Wait…you didn’t know?”
“I had no idea. I’m so sorry.” After a long, awkward pause, you say, “Please…tell me about it…if you can.”
She exhaled, and it seemed to bleed out some of the anger. “Apart from the time he kicked me till I had a miscarriage, or the three times he cracked my ribs, or the bruises, scratches and broken teeth, there isn’t much to tell.” As she talked, she pulled her phone from her handbag and poked it till she found what she wanted. “There are plenty of pictures though.” She turned the phone’s screen to you. There was a picture on it. At first glance it looked like a piece of fresh bloodied meat. Then you realised it was her face. She offered the phone. “Just swipe. There’s a whole folder full of these.”
You swiped. Two pictures in, and you almost stop. You managed to get to the end of the folder and handed the phone to her. The pictures had scattered your head. So you put your head in your hands and tried to nurse it. When you let go, a weariness had crept up and smothered your soul. You hadn’t planned to drink, but you signaled a waiter and ordered a rum and a Coke. That was when Joy ordered a vodka. You both were quiet till the drinks came and the first gulps went down.
“I’m so sorry. I wish you had told me then. I’d have stopped it.”
She shrugged. “At the time, you and Dami weren’t talking. I told your mother sha. I assumed she told you.”
“My mother?” You chuckled, but there was no mirth in it. “She would never tell me when Dami screws up.”
After your father’s death, perhaps to compensate for something you would never understand, your mother over-pampered Dami. Despite your constant protests, she changed his wardrobe twice a year, paid for his regular parties, got him a car when he finally passed JAMB on his third attempt, and indulged his every outlandish whim. This was at a time when your father’s company, which funded your family, was struggling to pay salaries and stay in business. Maybe that contributed to Dami growing into a lazy, entitled man. You took over the running of the company in Dami’s second year in UniLag. At the end of his third year, he decided, suddenly, that he’d drop out and go to school in the UK: and he demanded that the company pay for this. You refused at first, preferring that he finished his last year and go for a masters instead, but your mother nagged you ragged. Finally, after cutting the company’s costs by laying off four employees, men with families, you raised the funds for Dami. In his ten years in the UK before he was deported, all he managed to do was drop out of two universities and gain a drug habit. And all that time, the company, which you had stabilized and grown, paid his bills.
On his return, your mother insisted that you appoint him as a director in the company. Reluctantly, you did and Dami surprised you. He worked hard, restricted his partying to weekends, married Joy, and seemed to have gotten his shit together. He did all this for one year, till the day he forged your signature on cheques and other authorisations, and cleaned out just over one hundred and ninety-six million from the company’s main operating account. He refused to return the money. Your mother forbade you from getting him arrested. You filed a civil lawsuit. He fled to Lagos with Joy. Your mother eventually got you to drop the lawsuit. But for four years, she was unable to get you and Dami talking again. Until the tumour.
Joy sighed. “I’m sorry to say this, but…” She didn’t sound sorry. “Your mother made Dami the asshole he is. You know that, right?”
You thought about it for a moment. “She enabled him, yes. But he was destined to be an asshole.”
It forced a reluctant smile from her and broke some of the remaining tension.
“I’m really sorry.”
“It’s OK. It’s not your fault.” She leaned back with a wistful look in her eye. “You know, it wasn’t the beatings that made me leave him. It was the STDs.” She sighed. “I still can’t believe I was that stupid. Looking back, I could have easily killed him…” She sighed again and stared at you without blinking. “I wish I had. All those years, I could have slipped something in his food, or cut off his penis as he slept.”
“Why are you laughing?”
You could have told her that you have a quirk which makes you laugh at inappropriate moments. Instead you just shook your head and said, “It’s nothing. Forget about it.”
You took advantage of another lengthy silence to finish your drink. You caught her eyes, held them and said as honestly as you could. “I hope you forgive yourself and you heal fully soon.”
Her smile was sad. “I’m glad you didn’t say I should forgive him.”
You shrugged, “I suspect that comes as part of the full healing package.”
“I’ll heal when I see Dami’s grave. I plan to spit on it.”
“That’s not going to happen.”
Her eyes flashed. “Is that a dare?”
“You don’t understand.” You exhaled. “He wants to be cremated.”
“She didn’t come.”
It had been a good, fun night. Despite how weak he was, Dami had played his best public-Dami – cracking jokes, telling the tallest of tales, charming and yabbing everyone, shining in the limelight, a dying star in its supernova. And while there was an underlying sadness to his last performance, surprisingly, it was without any self-pity. You lost count of the number of people who said they wanted a living funeral or would consider one.
Dami repeats himself. “Joy didn’t come.”
You don’t reply. You focus on propping his pillows and settling him, half-sitting in them, the way he likes. You’d developed a ritual of visiting him late at night, after your twins, Ejeme, and Dami’s full-time live-in nurse had turned in. You’d give him any remaining medication, prop his pillows, sit on the chair beside his bed, watch TV, and chill till he fell asleep. Sometimes, there are conversations. Mostly, it’s about old times, when you were kids, when your father and Kalada were still around; sometimes it’s about the now, your kids, how he was coping with his illness. But Dami never talks about his hedonistic years in the UK, or about the one year he worked for the company upon his return. And you never talk about the money he took.
He watches you for a while then says, “You knew she wasn’t going to come, didn’t you?”
This is the moment to give him a good talking to. You want to yell, and tell him that of all his screw-ups in life, beating Joy was the one you were most disappointed about. But you just say, “After all you did, do you blame her?”
His smile is tight. “Yeah, I don’t blame her.”
For a long moment, you both stare at the TV blankly. Then he sighs heavily. “I was tripped out of my mind almost all the time. It doesn’t justify it, but…” He tries to flick a wrist to push his point across, but his hand drops down weakly. “I’ve been trying to stop being that man.” He sighs again, and smiles. “It seems I’ve run out of time and chances to make things right.” He turns away but you manage to catch the end of his momentary wince. And you understand that his pain is not only physical.
You face the TV, and allow yourself to be lost in its mindlessness. When you turn to Dami, he’s asleep, chin on chest, snoring lightly. You mute the TV but you don’t turn it off – Dami prefers sleeping with the TV on. You pull the blanket over him and he doesn’t stir. You turn off the lights and walk to the door.
“Did I ever apologise to you for…for everything?”
It takes a little while before you answer. “No.”
From the light of the TV, you can see that Dami has this big shit-eating grin. “Don’t worry. One day, I will.”
You both start laughing.
Your secretary shows Joy into your office and you come from behind your desk. You are not sure how to greet her. You’re pleasantly surprised when she gives you a hug. An awkward, stiff, half-hug, but technically, still a hug. You lead her to the visitors’ sofa in a corner of the office. She asks for water. You ask your secretary to get some. You only knew she was in Port Harcourt when she called you on her way from the airport. You tell her to give you some notice next time so you can pick her from the airport or send a car for her. She shrugs and you can’t tell what that means. Your secretary brings the water and leaves. She ignores the water. She asks if she can look at the pictures on the shelf behind your desk. She doesn’t wait for your reply before she looks. There are four pictures. One of Ejeme; one of your girls; and one of your side-burned father in an eighties-style suit, writing with one hand, and with the receiver of a rotary dial phone in his ear, sitting in this same office.
The final picture was taken when you were ten, to mark your father’s chieftaincy. You and Kalada stood behind your sitting parents; Dami was between them, smiling through one missing milk tooth and holding your father’s gold walking stick. Your father was in his opulent ceremonial don, and was crowned with an attigra that had small mirrors and a plume of purple and yellow feathers; your mother wore her chunky coral beads and a kilali headgear; and you boys wore white etibos and bowler hats. Joy stares at this picture for a long time, an indecipherable look on her face.
She speaks without turning to you. “Why did you cremate him in Lagos?”
“There’s no crematorium in Port Harcourt.”
She turns to you. “I couldn’t come.” It was almost an apology.
You had called her when Dami died, before the reading of the will, and just before the cremation. Although she had passed on her perfunctory condolences to you and your mother on the phone, she hadn’t visited. Till now, ten months later.
“You have to stop paying money into my account.”
You shake your head. “I can’t. He left his shares in the company to you.”
She looks at you suspiciously. “What kind of company pays dividends every month?”
You smile. “I’ve not paid you his dividends yet – that will come at the end of the year. I’m just paying you his post-death benefits based on his contract as a director of the company. You’re his named beneficiary.”
“But you removed him as a director years ago.”
“I reappointed him a week before he passed.”
She closes her eyes and rubs her temple. “Why are you doing this?”
“Because that’s what he wanted…it’s what we both want.”
She hisses. “He thought he could buy me?”
“No. I’m the one trying to buy…” You shake your head. “I don’t know what I’m trying to buy sef. The past, maybe? Penance?”
“I don’t understand.”
It takes a while before you answer. Although your emotions are this deep whirlpool, you know it will barely produce enough words to explain the turmoil in your soul whenever you remember Dami. You try anyway.
“Dami was a bad man, but he was also my baby brother. That means it was my responsibility to smack him when he was bad, but not hard enough to kill him. So, he stole millions from the company. I smacked and he ran, right? Guess what? Everything he took, I made it back in two years. I knew the right people, oil prices were good, everyone was drilling: two years! But I don’t talk to him for four.”
You pause and sigh. “In those four years, I got married and didn’t invite him. In those four years, a tumour began to grow in his head. And because he had blown all the money and couldn’t afford treatment, and because we weren’t talking, it grew into a monster. By the time I heard, it was too late.”
Your voice starts cracking. “I threw money at that tumour, trying to buy my brother’s life. The same bloody money that made me not talk to him for four years. But the tumour didn’t want money. All it wanted was to eat my brother. I threw money at my brother. Whatever he wanted to do with it — steal it, smoke it — I didn’t care. But by then, all he really wanted was to stay with me. Make up for the lost years. Get to know my family. Play with my kids. Curl up and die in peace in my house.” You exhale. “So, I’m the one doing all the buying here.”
You turn away, pretending not to see the tears in her eyes. Then she says, “I’m sorry you lost your brother.” She adds hesitantly “And I really mean it.”
You don’t know what to say, so you nod and change the topic. “And you? Hope you’ve healed.”
She fidgets for a moment. “I’m not there yet but I’m getting better.”
You nod again. “Take your time.”
Then she smiles, part-tentative, part-mischievous. “You too. Heal soon.”